Letter from China: Village of painters blends art with vibrant commerce in concrete jungle

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by Xinhua writer Shi Hao

SHENZHEN, July 10 (Xinhua) -- I couldn't imagine that a small village nestled in the concrete jungle in the southern city of Shenzhen was home to one of the most concentrated communities of painters in China.

Filled with curiosity, I decided to explore Dafen Village, walking into a labyrinth of meandering alleyways featuring studios densely packed on both sides of the streets in a colorful world brimming with paint.

Spanning a mere 0.4 square kilometers, Dafen is home to over 400 professional painters, including 50 members of the China Artists Association, and to more than 1,200 studios that are in the painting business.

Summer breezes stirred the leafy streets lined with easels, swaying canvases that were hung out for drying. At the corner of an alley, 53-year-old painter Li Yuanfu was busy adding the finishing strokes to an oil painting created by a tourist without a painting background.

"On weekends and holidays, tourists flock to Dafen in large numbers. Many of them, particularly young people, are eager to try their hand at oil painting," he told me.

Li moved to Dafen along with many other aspiring artists shortly after the once obscure village rendezvoused with art in 1989, when art dealers sought to establish a painting production base near Hong Kong. Over the past decades, Li has witnessed Dafen's rise to fame and its transition from only making replicas to diversified business activities.

Just like Li, many studios are tapping into an influx of tourists and offering beginner-friendly painting experiences to visitors.

Strolling in Dafen, I saw young individuals and children sitting on the streets and excitedly painting on canvases with unskilled strokes under the guidance of instructors. At a cost of about 10 U.S. dollars and in the space of about an hour, the amateurs can gain a sense of accomplishment and create a work that could end up securing them many likes on social media.

Since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, waves of tourism mania have swept across China. Being a popular tourist destination in Shenzhen, one of the country's four first-tier cities, Dafen received more than 3 million visitors last year.

Li told me that many out-of-town tourists visit Dafen as their first stop in Shenzhen and he is eagerly anticipating a boom in business during the upcoming summer travel season.

Dafen gained its fame, in and beyond China, for making replicas of world-renowned masterpieces like the "Mona Lisa," but now a growing number of artists have shifted their focus to creating and selling original artworks.

Dong Chaoyang and his wife Zeng Min are two of them. Their works are well-received by tourists from abroad. "Foreigners visiting our shop are always drawn to the landscape paintings with unique Chinese characteristics," Zeng said.

The couple found that an increasing number of foreigners want products infused with Chinese culture, which they believe points to a promising direction for artistic creation in Dafen.

Although competition in the village is already white-hot, Jin Hongyun decided last year to lease a large store to sell higher-priced original works created by well-known painters, targeting a deep-pocketed clientele. To date, she has sold dozens of paintings.

Jin told me that as the middle-income group in China is growing, many families are no longer satisfied with low-quality paintings for room decorations and are turning their eyes to premium artworks, which spawns vast business potential.

My brief stay in Dafen gave me the feeling that these painters are never short of creativity when it comes to exploring business opportunities.

They are operating talent agencies for young artists, organizing training classes, running painting-themed cafes, making customized gifts for companies and individuals, engaging in jewelry design and production, creating publicity cartoons for local governments, hosting international painting exhibitions and delivering public lectures, to name just a few of their pursuits.

Official data showed that Dafen's total output was valued at 3.8 billion yuan (533 million U.S. dollars) in 2023. The painters are incorporating art with diversified business activities, making fortunes from a combination of their talent and diligence. Enditem

(Hu Yuqiong, Xu Yuqin, Liu Zhiyang, Yu Jiaqi, Feng Haohang, Zhang Yuli, Xiang Xinyu and Zhang Jiawen also contributed to the story.)

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